American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King, Jr.
edited by michael warner
library of america 939 pp. $40
Most of us are familiar with the story of the “two cultures,” as C. P. Snow called it, or, in Isaiah Berlin’s terms, “the divorce between the sciences and the humanities.” When John Milton was born, in 1609, it was still possible to “know everything”—that is, to be competent in the whole range of available knowledge. But by the time Milton died, in 1674, the young Isaac Newton was already doing work in optics and physics so specialized and detailed that it would make such general competence impossible, and Europe’s young scholars began to be confronted with a choice of intellectual paths—a choice that we still have to make today, though by now that simple fork in the road of learning has led to the copious tangled bronchi of the modern university, a place in which even denizens of a particular department can speak languages incomprehensible to one another.
Right though we have been to focus our attention on this fragmentation of culture—with both its benefits and its costs—it has perhaps led us to neglect another extremely important “divorce,” another bifurcation of a once-unified culture. I refer to the divorce between literature and theology. Oddly enough, this parting of the ways occurred at the same time as the other one: the seventeenth century in England would begin with a series of figures—John Donne, George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes—in whom literary excellence and theological acuity would be comfortably blended. It was also an age in which certain communal projects yoking theology and literature that had begun in the previous century would find their culmination: the Authorized Version of the Bible in 1611, the last major redaction of the Book of Common Prayer in 1660. In this period of English history—and one could adduce similar examples from elsewhere in Europe—the men of letters and the men of God were the same men, thanks largely to the Protestant Reformers’ embrace of much of the learning retrieved by the Renaissance humanists. (In this development some of the second-generation reformers were more important than even Luther and Calvin: Philipp Melanchthon’s role in linking classical literary culture with Protestant theology has been much neglected.)
In such a context it is not surprising that the great models of prose style in the vernacular languages would be theological writings. From the sixteenth-century treatises of Calvin in French, Luther in German, and Thomas More in English all the way through to Milton’s political pamphlets and Pascal’s Provincial Letters (1656), theologians more than anyone else shaped European notions of stylistic excellence. This fact has not often enough been noted, but the blame for such neglect should not fall primarily on the secularization of the European intelligentsia. Rather, the chief culprit has been the Romantics’ powerful redefinitions of belles lettres, which confined the literary to what they called works of “imagination”—imagination being defined in such a way as to exclude almost all polemical or discursive or fact-based writings, thus leaving poetry, fiction, and drama alone to populate the world of what was now, increasingly, called “literature.”
Strangely enough, it is the recent movement in university English departments from literary study (as defined by the Romantics) to “cultural studies” that has enabled a recovery of the literary significance of theological writings. The same movement has also led to a renaissance in the study of American literature, many of whose major writers (including Emerson, Thoreau, and almost everyone before the nineteenth century) have never fit into the Romantic literary categories. In light of these developments, it is not altogether surprising that the Library of America—a publishing program which, in its own self-description, is “dedicated to preserving America’s best and most significant writing”—would now be moving toward fuller representation of certain “nonliterary” masterpieces of literature. Not that the Library wasn’t aware of such works from the beginning: its first publications included not only the work of Emerson and Thoreau but also the historical writings of Francis Parkman and Henry Adams. But one senses a further expansion of range in some of its most recent efforts: a two-volume collection called Reporting Vietnam and the book at hand, a fascinating and ambitious collection of American Sermons.
But, however salutary this more expansive definition of literature may be in general, the claiming of these sermons as monuments of American literature is not a simple matter. Complex forces are at work here, and they require some investigation. Were these sermons to enter, or reenter, the canon of American literature, something would be gained; but a less definable something would be lost as well.
Michael Warner of Rutgers University has selected for this volume fifty-eight sermons by fifty-three different preachers. Warner is in some respects an ideal choice to do this job: a major figure in American Studies, he was also, in a phrase he once used in an autobiographical essay, a “teenage Pentecostalist” who later graduated from Oral Roberts University. That was, needless to say, before he became what he calls a “queer atheist intellectual,” indeed a founder of what has come to be called Queer Theory. But no hint of his current orientations can be found in his work here, which is if anything too conservative, befitting a staid publication program like the Library of America.
Warner’s selections can be analyzed and categorized in a number of ways, ways which collectively tell a very familiar story about American religious history. Of the fifty-three preachers represented, forty-seven are white, six black or of mixed race; fifty-one are men, two women; forty-five are Christian, four Unitarian, three Jewish, and one Mormon (Joseph Smith himself). Of the forty-five Christians, only two are Roman Catholic, only one Methodist, one Baptist. For obvious historical reasons, Puritan Calvinists rule the denominational competition, and half of the preachers appearing here, including the first sixteen, are from New England, though not one who lived in the twentieth century. The sermons of our century included here were preached by people born in South Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey (Hoboken), New York (New York City and Buffalo), Iowa, Florida, Missouri, Mississippi, Illinois, and Georgia—thus offering a nice illustration of the movement of American Christianity south and west, though not too far west. They also exemplify the proliferation of denominations, with their greatly varying theological and spiritual emphases. (Also represented among modern preachers are Paul Tillich, born in Prussia, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, originally of Warsaw, and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, from Lithuania.)
One more classificatory scheme may be illuminating here. The sermons from the seventeenth century average seventeen pages each; those of the eighteenth century average twenty-two pages. In the nineteenth century the page count descends to twelve per sermon, and in the twentieth to a mere nine. (Some sermons in every period are reprinted only in part, but such excerpting is more common in the early ones.) This change may well indicate the constriction of the American attention span, but it certainly reflects a change in the place of the sermon in American Christian life.
As Harry Stout has so capably demonstrated in The New England Soul (1986), in Puritan New England the homily was central not only to the spiritual education of the already pious congregation, but also to the communal life of the town or village. The Sunday morning sermon would typically last an hour or more—often much more—and would be followed by another in the afternoon, plus, in towns like Boston, a more scholarly “lecture” sermon given in midweek. By contrast, when contemporary Americans think of sermons, what first comes to mind is the evangelistic message—a homiletic genre which, following the enormously influential example of D. L. Moody, emphasizes brief exhortation rather than detailed exposition, and is situated in a larger context of music and worship than the old Puritan congregational sermon. Indeed, Moody always worked hand in hand with the singer and hymn-writer Ira Sankey to weave what would now be called a multimedia experience: the saving of souls was to be effected by a complex aesthetic presentation of which the sermon was only a part”though in one sense the key part, in that it pressed upon the audience the need not just to experience but actively to respond. One of the oddities of the modern world is that conservative Protestantism created and nourished an evangelistic enterprise in which the sermon was restored to a place in the worship service rather analogous to the place it held in sixteenth-century Anglican worship—just the tradition the fundamentalists’ Puritan ancestors had determined to escape.
Let’s look further into this history. Warner points out (in a brief concluding “Note on the Sermon Form”) that Puritan homiletic culture arose in direct opposition to standard Anglican practice in sixteenth-century England, which mandated only four sermons a year and suggested that they be read from the approved Book of Homilies which accompanied the Book of Common Prayer. Seventy years later, the high-church Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, would work to confine sermons to instruction in the catechism.
But between these periods matters were rather different. From the learned and intricate, yet sometimes brilliant, expository preaching of Lancelot Andrewes to the unabashedly flamboyant speculations of John Donne—whom T. S. Eliot, who came greatly to prefer Andrewes, would scornfully call “the Reverend Billy Sunday of his day, the flesh-creeper, the sorcerer of emotional orgy”—Jacobean England saw a great flowering of the homiletic art. In other words, preaching came to or near the forefront of Anglican worship, at least in London, just at the time that the dissenting or schismatic Puritans were leaving for America.
You might expect that the Pilgrims would borrow the rhetorical flair and literary fire of these new Anglican divines. Yet they did not, or not exactly. Warner is right to say, in an interview that the Library of America included with my review copy of the book, that American preaching’s “best examples contain some of the most powerful language we have produced.” But it is important to note that the most carefully crafted and literate of the sermons that Warner has collected arise from a tradition that explicitly rejected both the terrific erudition of Andrewes and the poetic flights of Donne. Indeed, Warner inadvertently points this out when he quotes, in the “Note” already mentioned, the guidelines for preachers articulated in William Perkins’ definitive—for Puritans, anyway—Art of Prophesying (1592). According to Perkins, the preacher’s task is to do four things:
- To reade the Text distinctly out of the Canonicall Scriptures.
- To give the sense and understanding of it being read, by the Scripture itself.
- To collect a few and profitable points of doctrine out of the naturall sense.
- To apply (if he have the gift) the doctrines rightly collected, to the life and manners of men in a simple and plaine speech.
(This fourfold division could be simplified—as for example in Warner’s selection from John Cotton’s “The Life of Faith”—into “Doctrine” and “Use.”) The first three requirements would have placed intolerable constraints on Donne, who reveled in imitating the God whom he believed to be “a metaphorical God,” while the last would have thwarted Andrewes’ multilingual festival. Perkins’ principles greatly restrict the available linguistic resources of the Puritan preacher.
To be sure, Perkins’ fourth point makes room for words of warning or exhortation vividly expressed, but the anti-Anglican context of the early Puritans seems to have prevented most of them from pursuing these possibilities very far. Indeed, it would be almost a hundred and fifty years after Perkins that Jonathan Edwards would exercise this implicit freedom in the crafting of his most famous sermon—and one of the definitive productions of the first Great Awakening—“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” (This is perhaps as good a time as any to note that Edwards is, beyond any question, the most important American writer not to have his own volume in the Library of America series.) Indeed, in his whole approach to preaching Edwards would come to emphasize the importance of Perkins’ fourth point: it was certainly necessary for Scripture to be exegeted and exposited accurately, but, as he once said, “Our people do not so much need to have their heads stored, as to have their hearts touched; and they stand in the greatest need of that sort of preaching that has the greatest tendency to do this.” Though many would decry him and other pastoral participants in the Awakening for their indulgence of excessive emotions, Edwards remained faithful to this vision, and would produce what may be the most brilliant and philosophically rich defense ever given of the proper role of emotion in the moral and spiritual life, the Treatise Concerning Religious Affections of 1746.
Nevertheless, as is well known, Edwards eschewed the usual tricks and resources of the orator in delivering even so explosive a sermon as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” As a witness recorded, though Edwards spoke in a quiet and level, even monotonous, voice, and made almost no gestures, rarely lifting his head to look at his congregation, nevertheless “there was such a breathing of distress, and weeping, that the preacher was obliged to speak to the people and desire silence, that he might be heard.” It is interesting to reflect that, while philosophers have traditionally linked literature and rhetoric as sister arts which lack the intellectual rigor and explicit foundations of the dialectic, Edwards would exploit every possible literary device yet scorn his era’s ideals of eloquence. It is possible, of course, to argue that Edwards was actually being very attentive to the rhetorical dimensions of his preaching by speaking such wild and violent words in a quiet and monotonous voice; but the eyewitnesses seem not to have thought that he was striving for effect. If we do not recognize this distinction we deprive ourselves of valuable terms with which to evaluate speakers—or else we have to replace the terms we have foregone with others. To paraphrase Orwell, all speeches may be rhetorical, but some are more rhetorical than others.
As is also well known, Edwards’ successors, especially among the evangelists of the last century-and-a-half, would not share his restraint; indeed, they considered the kind of response Edwards elicited as the pearl of great price which they would spare no effort or machination to achieve. We are only partly right to deplore this tendency. It is necessary to remember that Edwards was preaching to a congregation by our standards remarkably learned in Christian theology: they had been listening to sermons like his for some time (“Sinners” was part of the “application” phase of Perkins’ scheme, and had been prepared for by more strictly expository preaching).
D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham could count on no such preparatory knowledge, and were therefore limited in the kinds of sermons they could preach. If we think that their sermons are overly emotional and weak in content, then we must see the flaw as located not necessarily in them but in the whole enterprise of the evangelistic crusade, which by its very nature demanded a simple emotional appeal. And yet, in an increasingly multiethnic America, the evangelistic crusade has done for the Christian faith what no other cultural institution, as far as I can see, could possibly have done. People who become Christians for what some would term “the wrong reasons” can be tutored and developed in the faith; people who do not become Christians at all, obviously, cannot.
But would we want to say that, as the American sermon becomes less expository and more hortatory—addressed more towards the heart and the will than to the understanding—it becomes more literary? It is certainly tempting to say so, since our most common definitions of literature link it to the “heart” rather than to the “head.” But if Edwards could produce sermons that were, or that he tried to make, literary but not rhetorical, it might also be possible to preach sermons that are rhetorical but not literary. It’s worth noting in this context that the earlier sermons in this collection were in every case crafted as written words: only after the composition was complete did the preachers memorize and recite, rather than simply read, their homilies. (In this practice they were following ancient models of rhetoric, which divided the art of speaking into five parts: inventio, or the generation of ideas; dispositio, or the organization of those ideas; elocutio, or the putting of those ideas into a suitable style; memoria, or memorization; and pronuntiatio, or dramatically appropriate delivery. It is not clear, by the way, that Edwards followed either the fourth or fifth step.) Thus the sermon in this tradition is, in at least one of the strongest senses of the word, a literary enterprise.
By contrast, many of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century sermons reprinted here were never written down, but rather were recorded and transcribed by listeners. Though such sermons may well have been carefully crafted in the preacher’s mind, they nevertheless sometimes depended on inspirations of the moment, and certainly relied heavily on the art of pronuntiatio. A sermon by one Brother Carper, here called “The Shadow of a Great Rock in a Weary Land,” was preached (probably in the 1840s) in the hearing of a Methodist missionary in Missouri named James V. Watson. Watson was much taken with the sermon and with the preacher—the son of a slave woman and her master—who in Watson’s opinion preached with “the genius of an Apollos and the force of an Apostle.” He recorded that Brother Carper “read with hesitancy and inaccuracy; seeming to depend less upon the text to guide him, than his memory”; but when Brother Carper got going his delivery was clearly so vital to his success that Watson made a point of recording his speech phonetically:
But, brederen, de joy ob de belieber in Jesus am set forth in a figerative manner in de text [Isaiah 32:2]. It am compared to water to dem what be dying ob thirst. O, how sweet to de taste ob de desert traveler sweltering under a burning sun, as if creation was a great furnace! Water, sweet, sparklin’, livin’, bubblin’, silvery water, how does his languid eye brighten as he suddenly sees it gushing up at his feet like milk from de fountain ob lub, or leaping from de sides ob de mountain rock like a relief angel from heben. He drinks long and gratefully, and feels again de blessed pulsations ob being.
However imperfectly, Watson’s transcription captures some of the energy that must have driven Brother Carper: the rhythms depend upon balanced clauses, while a curious and not wholly describable beauty arises from the combination of colloquial grammar (“it am compared”) and a highly “literary” vocabulary (“silvery,” “languid,” “pulsations”). Still, as one reads Watson’s account, one is aware of a certain lack of access to an experience that seems to have transfixed an audience.
But another black preacher in this collection benefits exceedingly by the art of transcription, perhaps because he was blessed with a more artful transcriber. Zora Neale Hurston—one of this century’s major American writers—records for us a sermon delivered in Eau Gallie, Florida, by one C. C. Lovelace, about whom, apparently, nothing is known. Hurston represents the preacher’s brilliant poetic flights by changing the format from prose to verse when he really sets sail:
And one of de disciples called Jesus ”Master!! Carest thou not that we perish?”
And He arose
And de storm was in its pitch
And de lightnin played on His raiments as He
stood on the prow of the boat
And placed His foot upon the neck of the storm
And spoke to the howlin’ winds
And de sea fell at his feet like a marble floor
And de thunders went back in their vault
Then He set down on de rim of de ship
And took the hooks of His power
And lifted de billows in His lap
And rocked de winds to sleep on His arm
And said “Peace be still.”
“The preacher is a true poet,” Hurston later wrote, and this poem is not one I am likely to forget.
With the exception of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson—whose vivid sermon here gives every appearance of being transcribed from speech, using as it does a dialogue format that would be fully comprehensible only if it were spoken—the white evangelists don’t come off as well. Least impressive of all is Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, whose sermon is a confused farrago of incoherent statements, leavened by a kind of swaggering defensiveness: “I have now preached a little Latin, a little Hebrew, Greek, and German; and I have fulfilled all. I am not so big a fool as many have taken me to be. The Germans know that I read the German correctly.” (This accompanied by repeated claims to moral perfection: “I never think any evil, nor do anything to the harm of my fellow-man.”) But the Christian evangelists fare only somewhat better, and that’s largely because they lack Smith’s egregious character flaws.
Perhaps it is because preaching of their kind is familiar to me from my childhood; or perhaps it is because the virtues of their particular rhetorical styles do not survive transcription; or perhaps it is because the larger musical and (yes) liturgical context of the crusade is missing; but the sermons of D. L. Moody and R. A. Torrey seem to lack all fire and verve.
You ask me to explain regeneration. I cannot do it. But one thing I know—that I have been regenerated. All the infidels and skeptics could not make me feel differently. I feel a different man than I did twenty-one years ago last March, when God gave me a new heart. I have not sworn since that night, and I have no desire to swear. I delight to labor for God, and all the influences of the world cannot convince me that I am not a different man.
Three hundred years before Moody uttered these words, William Perkins was counseling preachers to employ the plain style and shun ostentation. But Moody’s style seems so plain, so utterly unadorned, as to be altogether characterless. The rhythms are simplistic, the vocabulary limited and bland; the whole text shuns vivid image or metaphor. Yet Moody was undoubtedly an immensely effective evangelist. Whatever virtues he possessed simply do not appear in this text, while the verbal power of C. C. Lovelace fairly blows out of the page, like a holy version of the storm Jesus stilled.
And that raises a question about the governing notion of this collection, that the sermon is a kind of literature. It would seem, to judge by this exemplary collection, that American preaching is rarely very literary: seldom does it exhibit the kind of linguistic inventiveness we associate with great writing. At the beginning of its history it is unliterary on (anti-Anglican) principle, though preachers could have exhibited more literary style; later it is unliterary because the preachers have few or no literary resources, and because it becomes more strictly oratorical. Among all the preachers represented here, only Edwards and the black preachers combine theological depth and the mastery of language. And only in Edwards’ case is that mastery strictly literary. Therefore the interest of this book, while great indeed, is primarily theological and historical rather than aesthetic.
Some would protest at the distinctions I have made—between rhetorical and non-rhetorical preaching, between literature and rhetoric, between theological-historical interest and aesthetic interest, and so on. I have said that we may thank the movement of literary scholars towards cultural studies for this collection, and that is true, but certainly the current arbiters of cultural studies would strenuously deny the distinction between literary and nonliterary texts. Stephen Greenblatt, the founder of the movement called New Historicism, wrote some years ago that “literary and nonliterary texts circulate inseparably” in a culture, which is undoubtedly true; but that very point, as Greenblatt understood when he made it, relies on our ability to distinguish between those two types of texts. Greenblatt’s successors, in their pious and, they believe, radically historicizing urge not to “privilege” the literary, refuse so to discriminate; but they are wrong to refuse.
It would be enough to say that they are wrong because distinction, discrimination, is near the heart of any intellectual enterprise. As the philosopher Bernard Williams has noted in a different context, we are often in our thinking unnecessarily reductive, and end by suffering from a kind of poverty of concepts: we don’t account for different phenomena very well because we don’t have enough distinct terms with which to talk about them. But in the case at hand historical reasons for preserving the distinction between the literary and nonliterary are still more compelling. The most literate of American preachers formed their homiletical practice in contrast to a group of preachers they found overly “literary” (though that is not the word they would have used). For them, the realm of beautiful language was a seductive and spiritually dangerous one: thus Perkins’ insistence on a plain style of exposition. Stylistic embellishment is a form of vanity, both in the common sense and the sense employed by Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, saith the Preacher.” The “divorce between literature and theology” that I lamented in my opening paragraphs never happened in America, because the two were never married in the first place—indeed, they were barely acquainted, and their relationship was characterized by mistrust, especially on the theological side.
Michael Warner’s mistrust of the philosophical validity of this distinction between the literary and the nonliterary has, then, a curious result. In the book he has edited, we find the history of the American sermon wonderfully encapsulated—and much of the salient history of American religion encapsulated along with it. But the impetus for this collection was a literary enterprise, a context into which these sermons manifestly do not fit. A truly literary anthology of American sermons would look very different from this one; but I doubt it would be nearly as good.
Alan Jacobs is Professor of English at Wheaton College.